Footprints Show Where Neanderthals Hunted Baby Elephants in Spain

A popular, upbeat instrumental from the early 1960s was “Baby Elephant Walk.” Composed by Henry Mancini, who won a Grammy award for Best Instrumental Arrangement, the song was written for a scene in the movie “Hatari!” when three baby elephants are walked to a waterhole to bathe. Unfortunately, not all baby elephant walks are pleasant or song-worthy. Archeologists in southwest Spain recently found 34 sets of footprints belonging to straight-tusked elephants (Palaeoloxodon antiquus) that roamed the area during the Late Pleistocene, more than 30,000 years ago. While some adults were 15 feet tall, a number of the tracks appear to be from baby elephants. Among those tiny (relatively speaking) footprints were others that revealed to the archeologists how some of these babies and some of the weaker adults died on this beach … Neanderthals.

Drawing of a straight-tusked elephant

“The preservation of this track record in across a paleosol surface, although heavily trampled by different animals, including Neanderthals, over a short time frame, permitted an exceptional view into short-term intraspecific trophic interactions occurring in the Last Interglacial coastal habitat. Therefore, it is hypothesized that Neanderthals visited MTS for hunting or scavenging on weakened or dead elephants, and more likely calves.”

In a new study published in Scientific Reports, archeologists from Spain and Portugal describe (with photos) what they found at an Upper Pleistocene site known as the Matalascañas Trampled Surface (MTS) in Huelva in southwest Spain – a high concentration of prehistoric straight-tusked elephant tracks. The size of the prints and length of the gaits allowed them to size the elephants using this pathway in their search for water to drink and bathe in. While two were probably bulls standing 3.25 meters (10.6 feet) tall and weighing 7 tons, three were smaller adult females and 14 were newborn calves (around two months old) and adolescents. In other words, this was probably a prehistoric elephant nursery.

And a Neanderthal hunting ground.

“The repeated pattern of young proboscidean procurement suggests that age played a significant role in their selection, likely related to a better nutritional value and the relative ease to hunt and butchering, as well as transporting the best nutritious parts. Therefore, and in parallel with the examples provided, the coetaneous presence of Neanderthal tracks and lithic tools together with megafauna trackways, including P. antiquus, rises the hypothesis that the MTS coastal pond may have been an elephant resource habitat for Neanderthals. They would be here seasonally intentionally hunting more accessible targets such as calves, juveniles or weakened females in delivery, or opportunistically scavenging stillbirths and females dead from birth.”

The scene could have looked something like this — before the Neanderthals arrived

Based on the fact that the Neanderthal footprints could be dated to the same time period as the elephants’, the archeologists concluded that they were there for low-hanging elephant steaks – killing newborns and older, weaker elephants and perhaps grabbing the occasional stillborn baby. The Neanderthals were obviously smart enough to avoid the massive adults, possibly because that elephant meat and fat fed their growing brains. The large beasts were easy to track and once the Neanderthals tasted their meat, they learned to return to these watering holes during nursing season for some easy-to-catch-and-carry meals. This site adds to the small but growing body of evidence that humans and their archaic cousins were at least partly responsible for the extinction of mammoths and prehistoric elephants like P. antiquus, which died off around 28,000 years ago in the southern Iberian Peninsula – overlapping the presence of humans.

This kind of ruins the “Baby Elephant Walk,” doesn’t it?

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